On May 23, 1999, Owen Hart — aka the Blue Blazer — was preparing for a heroic moment.
The beloved professional wrestler was to descend 70 feet from the rafters of a jam-packed Kansas City arena and into the ring — for a pay-per-view, World Wrestling Federation matchup against The Godfather.
But instead of triumph, there was tragedy.
An equipment malfunction resulted in Hart plummeting to the ground — leaving him with a severed aorta.
Paramedics rushed onto the arena floor and the audience first assumed it was all part of the show.
But it wasn’t.
Moments later, Hart stopped breathing, and would soon be pronounced dead.
But Vince McMahon, the WWF’s already scandal-plagued CEO who declined to offer comment on the allegations in this piece, allegedly couldn’t stomach the idea of putting a stop to the lucrative proceedings.
“Vince decreed that they should keep going,” Abraham Josephine Riesman, author of the new book “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America,” told The Post.
“So the rest of the wrestlers had to perform knowing their friend was gravely injured, probably dead, and then [later] knowing he was dead,” said Riesman, who interviewed over 150 people — many of them quite close to McMahon — while researching tell-all tome.
Riesman examines McMahon’s rise from an allegedly abusive childhood in impoverished Southern Pines, NC to a tycoon overseeing a $6B industry — and some very dark moments along the way.
In the book, Riesman claims than on that fateful night in Kansas City, McMahon had settled for a technician who hadn’t worked with WWF before and who had “significantly less experience with the stunt than the technician who’d overseen similar entrances in the past.
And, Riesman writes that, just moments after the fatal accident, McMahon had the crowd back in the palm of his hand — chanting “Vince! Vince! Vince!” as he entered the ring, desperate for the show to go on.
“Before the broadcast cut out, you could see Vince standing there, in his capacity as a character, heaving his breath, trying to act. He was making a face of theatrical determination,” writes Riesman.
The author’s research led him back to McMahon’s own origin story, beginning in an allegedly toxic household with mother Vicki Askew (then Lupton) and stepfather Leo Lupton.
In an archived interview with Playboy in 2000, McMahon said that his stepfather was often physically abusive to the point that McMahon regrets “he died before I could kill him.”
McMahon’s ticket out of a troubled childhood came when he finally met his biological father, wrestling pioneer Vince McMahon Sr., at age 12 in the late 1950s.
“Vince basically learned the dark art of being a wrestling promoter from his father,” Riesman said of McMahon Sr. who had previously abandoned their family for another one.
“That really set him down a path where he realized he could take all of these resentments, all of these frustrations, many of them with his own father, and try to use them as leverage to assert himself or at least use them as motivation to assert himself.”
After years of training under his father, McMahon was finally ready to take over the macho empire — acquired for roughly $1M, paid in four installments — in the early 1980s.
But the younger McMahon’s reign proved controversial from before day one.
As early as 1983, for example, there were allegations, based on a police report, that McMahon was entangled in — and then attempted to cover up — the death of Nancy Argentino, alleged to have been murdered by her WWF superstar partner Jimmy Snuka.
“There does seem to be heavy evidence that a previous domestic violence incident between Nancy Argentino and Jimmy Snuka had been [suppressed] by Vince in that he told Nancy to drop the case,” Riesman said.
In particular, a police report from this time stated that “Vince McMahon tried to talk [Argentino] out of making the complaint against Snuka.”
A few months later, when Argentino was found dead, McMahon was reportedly on the phone with cops soon after, Riesman claimed, citing a conversation with Snuka’s wrestling competitor. McMahon has previously denied any involvement in the investigation of Snuka.
“The coroner recommended that it be investigated as a homicide. But long story short, the case just sort of went away. Nothing came of it,” Riesman said.
“There’s a story Jimmy Snuka told — it’s very vague in his memoir — about Vince coming to a meeting with some authorities and bringing a briefcase, which was not the usual M.O., to have a briefcase with him. And [Snuka] doesn’t know what was in the case, but it must have helped because he got off the charges right after,” Riesman said.
Upon a 2015 reinvestigation, Snuka was finally charged with murder and involuntary manslaughter.
He was found unfit for trial and died two years after in Pompano Beach, FL.
Just a few years after Argentino’s death, close associates of McMahon were involved in an alleged child molestation scandal, centered on the WWF’s “ring boy” program, which took kids with difficult home lives and offered them apprenticeships doing miscellaneous tasks within the organization.
Tom Cole, a former ring boy, came forward in the early 1990s with allegations, based on a police report, of sexual misconduct against Mel Phillips, a ring announcer and head of the youthful crew, as well as Terry Garvin, another ring boy manager, who allegedly propositioned Cole in exchange for a promotion.
Cole alleged that when he declined, he was fired.
The accusations wound up splashed across front pages — The Post included — in 1992. Phillips and Garvin, in addition to their superior and McMahon’s “right hand man” Pat Patterson resigned that spring.
Cole ultimately sued the WWF — along with his brother Lee — for $750,000 in damages. In the end, Tom won little more than his job back, plus $55,000.
McMahon was already battling an onslaught of nightmare press, a grand jury investigation of the company’s dealings, and allegations of rape against McMahon himself from their first female referee Rita Chatterton, who first went public on the Geraldo Rivera show in 1992 and settled out of court earlier this year.
. McMahon continues to deny Chatterton’s allegations.
The situation with the Coles, he seemingly surmised, was one he could easily charm his way out of.
Lee Cole told Riesman in an interview that McMahon wined and dined he and Tom and put them up in a fancy hotel room — even arranging for a supposedly impromptu meeting with WWF wrestlers and managers in the hotel lobby.
The following day, at WWF headquarters in Stamford, Conn., Tom signed papers stating that the then-disgraced Pat Patterson had nothing to do with the alleged instances of molestation.
Patterson would quickly be reinstated.
Tom Cole took his own life years later, in 2021.
Despite McMahon’s public embarrassments, the lord of Titan Towers remains beloved by fans around the world — and plenty of industry journalists.
In the years to follow, many more allegedly shady dealings would come to light, many of them detailed in the Wall Street Journal’s 2022 report that McMahon paid out $12 million over the past 16 years to cover alleged accounts of sexual misconduct and infidelity — a bombshell which resulted in McMahon temporarily stepping away from the organization.
“I have pledged my complete cooperation to the investigation by the Special Committee, and I will do everything possible to support the investigation. I have also pledged to accept the findings and outcome of the investigation, whatever they are,” McMahon said at the time.
McMahon, now 77, currently serves as World Wrestling Entertainment’s executive chairman — a change from his former titles of CEO and Chairman.
He is now said to be actively shopping the company for as much as $9 billion.
Through it all, he remains undefeated.
“The wrestling news outlets still write deferentially, sometimes even lovingly, about Vince,” wrote Riesman. “His legacy is secure in the industry he remade. Mr. McMahon is an armor that virtue cannot destroy.”
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